Diverse Impressions of a Passionate Cook’s State of Mind Eating New Orleans Soul Food – Part I

This has probably been the hardest post for me to write. I’ve sat with these beautiful  pictures for months, thinking on how best to put my experience in New Orleans into words. How do I describe the quiet majesty of the Mississippi River? It’s easy to imagine how commerce and trade and eventually towns and cities  sprouted along its banks.

The streams I knew as a child were easy to ford and were only good for swimming with the help of a bamboo pole as a raft. I grew up with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer  by Mark Twain. I’ve traveled this river a thousand times in my imagination, but never had the opportunity to see it for myself.

I can only show you some of the things I’ve seen and hope that each picture is worth a thousand words. Sitting on the pier taking these pictures brought images of Forrest Gump and river boats and shrimping.  Finally, I was able to appreciate the love great authors had for this river.

Crayfish… by the pound, boiled with a blend of spices and sold in the local corner store. I quickly learned that some of the best food that the city had to offer was to be found in the little neighborhood stores. In New Orleans, corner stores sell everything from crayfish to cigarettes, and that’s just aisle C. These critters were delicious, but only if you were willing to spend the time extracting the meat from the body. In true New Orleans style, take the head and drain the juices between your lips: the flavor is sweet, salty and spicy at the same time. It helps if you have a bottle or two of beer to wash everything down. I have a preference for Stella Artois with my crayfish, but I leave the choice of beer to you.

One of my favorite places to eat was a restaurant chain called Tastee.  It’s actually a cross between a doughnut shop, White Castle burger and a diner. This one was located in a strip mall and had an unassuming store front.

But eating is an adventure, where the true value of a restaurant is measured by the quality of its food. This one was worthy of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives hosted by Guy Fierri on the Food Network.

I had six tiny burgers. Each thin patty fit perfectly on a dinner roll and were cooked with onions on the flat-top and garnished with a generous squirt of yellow mustard. The server/cook/cashier wrapped each one in its own deli-paper before handing me my order.

New Orleans is a city that should be explored in spoonfuls, each spoonful distinct from the first: the smell of the Mississippi River, of mud and silt flowing to the ocean, the festive echo of music and parties. Music and the Mississippi – plus a distinctive social grace – have sunk into the brickwork and decorative ironwork of Bourbon Street.

The heritage of this city is as rich and inviting as a warm bowl of gumbo on a cold night. Like gumbo, it should be ladled from a slow cooker into warm bowls, with friends who appreciate a hearty meal and stimulating conversation.  This complex mélange of flavors, history, and culture has simmered on the Mississippi delta for hundreds of years, giving the city a unique imprint found nowhere else in the continental United States.

Whether at a  local restaurant in the French Quarter or the home of friends on Canal Street, the smell of deep brown, nutty, cooked roux, melding with peppers and andouille and okra and history, was meant to be savored and shared. Gumbo, a stew made from the vegetables of African slaves and the techniques of their French masters, exemplifies the character of the city. In fact, it’s impossible to separate New Orleans from its past. Walking along the streets in the Downtown area or Garden district is like embarking on a time warp to the early 1800s.

Initially settled by the French in 1718, followed by rich Spanish plantation owners in 1765, and their African slaves, the city grew as wave after wave of Haitian, American, Irish and Filipino immigrants moved to New Orleans.  The architectural influences of the French and Spanish are well preserved in the historic buildings and houses all over the city.

The city bears the signs of the people who have lived here: French, American Indian, Haitian, African. Walking through the streets of the French Quarter, one can easily imagine the lifestyles of its inhabitants of former days. This is a city wrapped in the past where time has stood still and preserved the history and culture of another era. Tourists can still enjoy a tour of the city in a mule-drawn buggy: you learn about history as you ride in a piece of it. What is now a tourist attraction was once the primary means of moving cargo from the barges that came to dock at the pier, to the warehouses located nearby.

There to serve the hungry dock workers and revellers as they recuperated from a night spent carousing and drinking was Cafe Du Monde.

They serve one thing and one thing only: beignets. Hot, fluffy and dusted with a generous coating of icing sugar, these deep fried treats are the French equivalent of the doughnut. The  recipe for beignets was brought to Louisiana by the Acadians. Cafe Du Monde, which is in essence a coffee shop, has been serving beignets  in the  French Market since 1862. It is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and only closes on Christmas day. Your beignets come three to a plate with your choice of coffee, soda or orange juice.

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As the day draws to a close, and the ebb and flow of people on Canal Street swirl around me, I’m ready for my next adventure. Tomorrow it’s the City of the Dead and the Lower Ninth Ward. I’m tired; tonight, I’m going to sleep and dream of gumbo and “life like a box of chocolates” and Tom Sawyer and the mighty Mississippi river. My dreams will be pleasant, and I hope yours will be, too.

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